Terns of Malaysia – Part 2

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Malaysia Terns

Several species of terns of Malaysia are quite common and thus a familiar sight to local birders. Nevertheless, these delightful birds still captivate birdwatchers with their active behaviour and striking appearance.

Throughout this article, kindly ignore the strikethroughs on the eBird links – the links are still working and clickable.

Terns of Malaysia – Part 2

This is the second part of the terns of Malaysia series. This article will focus on three commonly seen species – the Gull-billed, Whiskered and White-winged Terns.

Check out the links below for other entries in this series:

Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)

A chunky-looking tern with long, pointed wings, this species is a more generalist forager than other terns. Thus, it has a bill to match its lifestyle. The specific epithet ‘nilotica’ refers to the Nile River.

  • Medium-sized (33-43cm; roughly House Crow sized)
  • Upperparts pale grey, but the bird appears mostly white in the field. 
  • The wings are relatively long and pointed. 
  • Short, but forked tail.
  • The black bill is robust and gull-like (hence the name). 
  • Breeding plumage – A solid black cap develops on the head
  • Non-breeding plumage – The black cap becomes much reduced, often to only a spot behind the eye.
  • Refer to its eBird profile for more photos (including breeding plumage) and info.
Non-breeding plumage Gull-billed Tern in Malaysia
This is an adult Gull-billed Tern in non-breeding plumage. The black cap is reduced to a line behind the eye. Note the long, pointed wings and thick, black bill.
Breeding plumage Gull-billed Tern in Malaysia
This Gull-billed Tern has a solid black cap, indicating its breeding plumage. The short, forked tail is also evident here.

Wide-ranging species are found throughout the world. Non-breeding visitor to Malaysia.

When to see it in Malaysia?

Northern winter (September until May)

Where to see it in Malaysia?

Widespread and common throughout coastal areas of the country. Occasionally seen inland. Good places include:

  • Anywhere along the Selangor coastline (for example, Pantai Jeram mudflats)
  • Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA in Penang
  • I’ve also seen it at Lok Kawi beach in Kota Kinabalu

Usually encountered singly patrolling the beach looking for food. Occasionally makes sudden direction changes to snatch prey off the water/beach. Often rests on the mudflats/sandflats along with other species.

Resting Gull-billed Tern in Malaysia.
The Gull-billed Tern is often seen resting on the mudflats at low tide.
Lok Kawi beach Gull-billed Tern.
This Gull-billed Tern was seen cruising along Lok Kawi beach at Kota Kinabalu, hunting for crabs.

The Marsh Terns of Malaysia

The following two species are referred to as ‘Marsh Terns’. They’re so-named because they inhabit and breed in freshwater marshes. Rather than plunge-diving for fish, these terns pick food from the water’s surface instead. Both terns display very different breeding and non-breeding plumages.

Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

A common species familiar to birdwatchers in the country. Its common name is somewhat misleading, as ‘whiskered’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when looking at it!

  • Small-sized (23-29cm), compact appearance.
  • Relatively short and broad wings (for a tern).
  • Short, slightly forked tail.

Non-breeding plumage (the plumage most commonly seen in Malaysia):

  • Light grey upperparts, white underparts. Rather pale-looking overall.
  • Black on head limited to the hindcrown and nape – this black is usually speckly/streaky.
  • Black bill and legs
  • Juveniles – similar to non-breeding adults but have brownish patterns on the upper wings and back.
Non-breeding plumage Whiskered Tern in Malaysia
Adult Whiskered Tern in typical non-breeding plumage.

Breeding plumage:

  • Uniform grey upperparts and dark grey underparts.
  • A solid black cap develops on the head, from the bill extending to the nape.
  • A band of white along the ‘cheeks’. This contrasting white area supposedly gives it a ‘whiskered’ appearance, hence the name.
  • Dark red bill and legs
Breeding plumage Whiskered Tern Malaysia
This Whiskered Tern has already changed into its breeding plumage. The white cheeks/’whiskers’ are quite obvious, contrasting nicely with the black cap and grey body.

Refer to its eBird profile for more photos (including breeding plumage) and info.


From Europe and Africa to the Far East and Australia. A non-breeding visitor to Malaysia

When to see it in Malaysia?

Best during northern winter (September until May), but recorded year-round.

Where to see it in Malaysia?

One of the most widespread terns of Malaysia. This species regularly frequents:

  • Coastal areas include mudflats, beaches, wharves, harbours, and other marine areas (the Whiskered is ubiquitous along the Selangor coast, for example).
  • Inland water bodies include rivers, lakes, abandoned mining pools, and sometimes urban water retention ponds. (For example, the abandoned mining ponds at Kundang, Selangor)
  • Freshwater marshes (for example, Likas wetlands at Kota Kinabalu)
  • Paddyfields, especially wet ones (for example, the Tempasuk Plains in Sabah).
  • Check out its eBird distribution map in Malaysia.

The Whiskered Tern is often the easiest tern to see and photograph as it’s not particularly shy. It is usually seen singly or in small groups loitering over the water with its head down, looking for food. Nevertheless, at certain sites, it may gather in its hundreds!

Perched Whiskered Tern
This tern isn’t shy or skittish; consequently, its rather easy to photograph.
Flying Whiskered Tern
A Whiskered Tern in a typical head-down posture. The relatively short, broad wings and shallow forked tail are evident in this photo. This individual is changing from its breeding plumage to non-breeding plumage, hence the ‘dirty’ appearance.

White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)

It is a gorgeous species when in full breeding regalia. In many aspects, it shares similarities with the Whiskered Tern, such as behaviour, habitat, and non-breeding plumage. The specific name ‘leucopterus’ translates to ‘white-winged’—apt indeed!

  • Small-sized (23-27cm)
  • Relatively short and broad wings (for a tern).
  • Short, square-ended tail 
  • Dark red or black bill 
  • Red legs

Non-breeding plumage (the plumage most commonly seen in Malaysia):

  • Light grey upper parts, white underparts.
  • Some black on the crown and nape, connecting to a black patch behind and below the eye. Thus, it has a ‘wearing headphones’ appearance.
  • Juveniles – similar to non-breeding adults but have brownish patterns on the upper wings and back.
Juvenile White-winged Tern
A juvenile White-winged Tern. The ‘headphones’ are very obvious in this individual. Also, note the brown patterns on the back.

Breeding plumage:

  • All black body contrasting with silvery-white upper wings and tail
  • Underwing mostly black, except for white flight feathers.
  • This plumage pattern earns the bird its alternative name – White-winged Black Tern.
Breeding plumage White-winged Tern
A White-winged Tern in full breeding plumage looks like a completely different species!

Refer to its eBird profile for more photos (including breeding plumage) and info.


From Europe and Africa to the Far East and Australia. A non-breeding visitor to Malaysia

When to see it in Malaysia?

Northern winter (September until May)

Where to see it in Malaysia?

Relatively common. Similar habitat preferences to the Whiskered Tern; therefore, look for them in the same areas listed previously for the Whiskered. Additionally:

Both marsh terns often occur together, leading to potential confusion, especially in non-breeding plumage.

Non-breeding White-winged Tern
A digiscoped image of an adult non-breeding White-winged Tern. The ‘headphones’ is quite obvious. Also, note the black leading edge to the wing.

White-winged Tern vs Whiskered Tern

While markedly different in their breeding livery, these two species are similar in their non-breeding plumage. Below are some differences:

  • HEAD MARKINGS: The White-winged has ‘headphones’ behind and below the eye. The Whiskered  lacks headphones but may show variable black patches behind the eye.
  • SIZE: The White-winged is marginally smaller, but this is difficult to note unless they’re side-by-side.
  • BILL: The White-winged has a finer bill than the Whiskered, but again, challenging to appreciate in the field.
  • JUVENILE: The White-winged juvenile has a white rump, while the Whiskered juvenile has a grey rump. This feature is quite subtle, though.
  • It’s best to make your diagnosis based on multiple features instead of a single one.
Whiskered and White-winged Tern comparison
Comparison between Whiskered and White-winged Tern in non-breeding plumage.

Other potential confusion species are the similarly white Common Tern and Little Tern:

  • LITTLE TERN: Noticeably smaller and plunge-dives for fish. Develops a yellow bill when breeding.
  • COMMON TERN: It is slightly larger and has a different head pattern. It also has a markedly forked tail with extended streamers.
  • The next article in this series will discuss these two terns in more detail.


The Gull-billed, Whiskered and White-winged Terns are among the most common terns of Malaysia and therefore regularly encountered. Nevertheless, these striking birds still highlight birdwatching trips due to their active and bold behaviour. Look for them in their breeding livery; they’re especially stunning! 


Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Robson, C. (2005). New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (Concise Edition). New Holland Publishers, London, England.

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.


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